An extra 2,000 new teachers need to be recruited simply to keep Scotland’s schools open this winter amid the coronavirus crisis, ministers have been told.
Education Secretary John Swinney told Holyrood the Scottish Government could bring forward plans for rapid testing for school staff in the coming weeks.
But MSPs passed a motion saying there is a need for “at least an additional 2,000 full-time teachers to ensure that all schools can maintain safe staffing levels while managing absences due to Covid-19”.
The motion from the Scottish Greens was passed by 64 votes to one, with 56 abstentions, defeating the Scottish Government.
It came after the party’s education spokesman Ross Greer raised fears official figures on the number of pupils and teachers absent because of coronavirus could underestimate the scale of the problem.
He said while approximately 2,500 school staff and about 26,000 pupils have been off because of the virus, this could be an “undercount”.
Mr Greer told MSPs he could “no longer totally believe the official statistics on self-isolation and transmission within our schools”.
He said: “Multiple teachers have described being prevented by senior managers from fully listing the number of their pupils considered close contacts because the school want to keep self isolation numbers low.
“In one case a teacher who tested positive themselves listed their whole primary class as close contacts, following the guidance.
“They were told they could pick no more than a third of the children in the class.”
He added: “In other cases, teachers were not consulted at all when one of their pupils tested positive, and were unable to identify either themselves or other pupils as contacts, with a number of pupils who weren’t isolating subsequently becoming ill.
“One teacher told me that pupils in their school who were identified in the morning were told to attend class for the rest of the day and not tell their teachers they had been confirmed as a close contact.”
While the EIS teachers’ union called for 3,500 more staff to be taken on to reduce class sizes and allow for better social distancing, the Scottish Government has recruited just over 1,400 additional teachers and support workers, with a further 300 due to join them.
Mr Greer said 2,000 more staff must now be “urgently recruited”.
He told the Education Secretary: “Given staff absence rates already, before flu season begins, additional staff will be critical to simply keeping schools open, never mind reducing class sizes.”
Mr Swinney said: “The rise in overall Covid-related absences has been substantially driven by pupils who are isolating, which demonstrates that caution is being applied in the application of the self isolation requirements within schools.
“There is no direct evidence that transmission in schools plays a significant contributory role in rates of infection amongst children – and time out of school has a detrimental effect, particularly for vulnerable children.
“The evidence weighs clearly in favour of children attending school whenever it is safe to do so.”
He also told MSPs the Scottish Government “will bring forward plans in the near term, informed by clinical advice, potentially including piloting and rolling out in school rapid testing of staff”.
More details will be announced to the Scottish Parliament in the coming weeks, he pledged.
Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene said the Scottish Government has a “duty to step up and make schools safe”.
He added: “If some teachers do feel pressured to go to work when they have serious underlying health conditions, we need more teachers … simple as that.”
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “Although additional teachers have been recruited, unions and local authorities are clear it is not enough.
“Not enough to reduce class sizes or indeed support the blended learning required for pupils who are self-isolating.”
Liberal Democrat MSP Beatrice Wishart said: “Nobody should have to choose between their health security and their job security.”